- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

WILMINGTON, N.C. Kwame Brown barked as he strolled down a hallway in Trask Coliseum at Washington Wizards training camp. "Y'all gotta get your priorities straight," he told reporters for whom he had waited earlier. "I'm hungry!"

It was fitting, because in the last three practice sessions, Wizards coaches said, Brown has shown some real hunger on the basketball court and his best form since he was picked No.1 in the 2001 NBA Draft.

"I'm playing harder than I was last year," Brown said. "The intensity is better, just the awareness of where I should be. I'm still making a few mistakes, but a lot of the mental breakdowns I was having last year, they're not occurring this year and it's allowing me to focus more on basketball."

Brown's progress is welcome news for the Wizards, who as short a time ago as Monday were unsure of where Brown's game would stand entering training camp. That question was further muddled by Brown's sore hamstring, which limited his workouts throughout the summer and his participation on Tuesday, the first day of camp. Brown said the hamstring is still sore but has been able to play through it.

And the Wizards hope that toughness is one aspect of how Brown has changed from last season, when he took his lumps. The focus is not on what Brown didn't do last season or how coach Doug Collins might have treated him differently. Player, coach and organization alike are starting anew and dedicated to enabling him to fulfill his potential one step at a time. For Brown, every little step, every little increment of progress matters.

"He's done some things out on the floor, block shots he's lightning quick," Collins said. "He's hitting that little jump shot of his. He's been really good."

Perhaps the biggest concerns with Brown after last season were his mental toughness and consistency on the court. The pressure that came with being the No.1 pick was overwhelming at times, and Brown struggled.

Brown has expressed relief that he no longer bears the mantle of "reigning No.1 overall draft choice." That label now falls to the Houston Rockets' Yao Ming, and Brown won't miss it.

"[Scrutiny] is going to go away a little bit because some of the pressure is diverted," Brown said. "Yao Ming is the No.1 pick, so the media can focus on him a little bit and let me grow up."

A reporter asked Brown on Monday what advice he has for Yao, and his response revealed some of what the only high school player ever to be drafted No.1 overall had going through his mind last season.

"Being the No.1 pick, everybody's going to want to kill you, and if you don't play well, then you're going to get down on yourself and other people are going to get down on you," Brown said. "My advice is to never lose confidence in yourself."

Brown is working on that, and he's not doing it alone Brown has supporters among his teammates. Juan Dixon, a rookie but 3½ years his senior, has offered advice on how to deal with pressure. Christian Laettner and the since-departed Popeye Jones lent their guidance last season. Jerry Stackhouse has helped Brown improve his footwork.

"I've been through all the pressure situations," Dixon said of his experience as a two-time Final Four participant and 2002 NCAA champion at Maryland. "Here, there's a lot of pressure on Kwame to do well as the No.1 pick last year. I just try to instill some confidence in Kwame, help Kwame to believe in himself."

In that sense, after the pressure swallowed him a bit last season, Brown is looking forward to concentrating on basketball. If he can stay healthy and make strides through training camp, he will challenge for the starting power forward spot. Last season he averaged 4.5 points in coming off the bench in 54 of 57 games.

He attended Pete Newell's Big Man Camp this summer, along with teammates Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas. He's entering this season more prepared for the rigors of the NBA. He is effusing a different type of confidence, both in his willingness to compete for a starting job and in his ability to show improvement from last season.

"As long as every year I get better, I'm pleased with myself. If I'm where I was last year, then I'll scrutinize myself, I'll bash myself in the papers," Brown said. "But if I get better this year, I get better next year, that's what it's all about."

And every little step counts.

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